Questions still need answers

I VISIT the Towner gallery regularly, and sometimes enjoy the exhibitions.

I thought the current Piper show, for instance, quite interesting and (the lift being out of action) just about worth the climb - but that does not make me an uncritical lover of the wider Towner project.

The enterprise has been clumsily managed, shrouded in unnecessary secrecy, patronisingly overhyped to the local community – and now its’ ever-increasing cost threatens to sabotage any attempt to develop a long-term strategy for Eastbourne’s wider cultural development.

David Stevens is entirely justified in asking where the queues are - for that is precisely the way the council, between 2003 and 2008, sold the project.

Architects’ drawings always pictured the ‘Cultural Centre’ surrounded by a milling throng of avid ‘culture-lovers’.

We were told the new gallery would attract an additional five per cent of visitors each year – that is, over 200,000 extra tourists.

The borough council’s 2006 Economic Blueprint for the area said (p 29) the new gallery would “act as a catalyst to develop the economic role of the sector whilst at the same time enhancing the cultural product assets to encourage higher spending visitor activity” – crowds of new Towner visitors queuing to spend money in Eastbourne.

Now this has been exposed as nonsense, we are instead being told we must praise our far-sighted councillors because the Arts Council has given the gallery a ‘massive’ increase - though, in truth, the Towner’s ACE enhancement was a modest one (between 2012 and 2015 the Towner will receive £375,000 annually; Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion £518,000).

And in lieu of a promised increase in tourism revenue, we are now instructed to admire the council for its sponsorship of the Towner’s education programme.

But credit for that belongs mainly to ACE – it is a key condition of their revenue funding – and to the authority with statutory responsibility for education, the county council.

It seems the council will say anything to stop us asking awkward questions - such as why do they still refuse to tell us the full capital costs of the project; how they are handling the huge debt incurred by their inability to raise the £1,400,000 matching costs; or why they are still making payments to Rick Mather Associates?

And the most awkward of all - why will they not admit to the damaging effect spiralling costs of the Towner are having upon Eastbourne’s wider cultural provision?

Comparisons between Margate and Eastbourne are instructive. Visitors to Margate will enjoy the stunning new Turner Gallery (which easily passed its much higher visitor target in its first six months) but will also find clear evidence of a local authority dedicated to working openly with its own community across the whole range of cultural provision – in which one project has not been allowed to become the economic black hole of all cultural development.

The Margate Theatre Royal, fully renovated, is now a vibrant community theatre.

The Old Town, once seedy and downtrodden, now boasts music cafes, vintage stores, quirky bookshops and innovative street art.

The huge Dreamland project - with its unique fairground restoration and state-of-the art media centre - opens next year.

The contrast with Eastbourne - with its increasingly shabby town centre, collapsing old Towner building, fenced-off Treasure Island site, crumbling theatres and politicians still more interested in propaganda soundbites than in working openly with the local population - could hardly be greater.

Nor could the moral be more obvious.

John Pick

South Street